(Photo Credit: PhotosportNZ)
Are New Zealand's basketball glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s back?
Following the successful Showdown in 2020 where the League remodelled itself to deal with Covid-19, the competition is now seeing an amazing surge in numbers with the Sal's NBL returning to a full home and away season and games being played across the nation.
Fans have been turning up in droves across the opening weeks of the 2021 season with more than 12,000 people heading to stadiums each round to watch the competitive action.
The bustling crowds hit a new peak over the weekend with 3,950 turning up in the capital to see the Wellington Saints take on the Sky Tower Auckland Huskies, while the likes of the Steelformers Taranaki Airs, Mike Pero Nelson Giants and Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams also enjoyed big numbers.
The Giants put the sold-out sign up hours ahead of their game against the Taylor Hawke's Bay Hawks on Saturday night, while the Rams have sold-out four straight home games.
Understandably, the dramatic rise in crowd numbers is pleasing League GM, Justin Nelson.
"It feels like the hard work by so many people over the last couple of years is starting to pay off," said Nelson, adding "Our team GMs are doing a great job, and I can't speak highly enough of the support being provided by our commercial and broadcast partners. They are such a big part of this.
"I attended three games across the weekend and for me the crowds were the highlight, the fans are back at their home stadiums and loving the Sal's NBL show. Friday night in Wellington was incredible, all credit to the Saints and the team behind the scenes on filling the stadium, they are doing an amazing job.
"And of course then you have the players, they are delivering so many highlights. I think the fans also enjoy the chance to step on court straight after the game to meet the stars. These are the moments that create happy memories. As a fan, you can't beat that."
(Photo Credit: Masanori Udagawa)
The rise in popularity has also been reflected on social media, a platform where basketball thrives. Numbers to date for the 2021 season has the League tracking at increases of between 500 and 15,000 per cent.
Nelson believes the all round lift is largely due to a "perfect storm" brewing in New Zealand sport, which has basketball quickly moving to the front of the line.
"Take a drive around any community in New Zealand and see what the kids are up to, that tells you where we're headed with the next generation.
"They're playing basketball, be it in a stadium, at the park or schoolyard, or in their driveway. There is a real passion for the game and Kiwis are increasingly becoming recognised across the world for their toughness, high basketball IQ and work ethic.
"The number of Kiwi women and men playing overseas is oustanding, especially given the population size, and so many of these players are cutting their teeth in the Sal's NBL. I think that's what the fans love so much. The imports are fun to watch, but the excitement around seeing Kiwi talent is real."
(Photo Credit:Masanori Udagawa)